Since the announcement of the controversial bill on “Islamic separatism”, the debate has been raging, while major issues both domestic and international have repeatedly come to the fore.
A (re)structuration of French Islam
The regulation of French Islam is a recurring leitmotiv for Emmanuel Macron since his election in 2017. The awful decapitation of the French teacher, Samuel Paty and the murder of an orthodox priest in Nice, have put added pressure on the President’s policy . Macron’s goal is to create an “enlightened Islam”. His bill on “Islamic separatism”, has changed titles many times: from “separatisms” ( plural), to “ Islamic separatism”. Finally, it has been proposed – and approved – by the government , December the 9th, as the bill “to reinforce Republican principles”.
The same day, the prime Minister, Jean Castex, gave an interview in the French newspaper Le Monde in which he provided more information on the content of the bill. Three main themes are central: education, religious neutrality and control of Ngos. The obvious goal is to prevent the development of “political Islam” as well as “foreign influences”. The prime Minister reaffirmed the official position of the government by asserting that the real enemies of the republic are “political Islam” and “radical Islam”. Concomitantly, he declared that there is no political intention to stigmatize French Muslims. In his view, the bill is: “A law of protection and a law of emancipation” for French Muslims, and not at all coercive or stigmatizing.
Meanwhile, the public debate has focused on the religious leaders, presented as central actors to implement the presidential vision of “French Islam”. Emmanuel Macron plans to create a special certification granted to imams as a guarantee that they are preaching and teaching according to French values. For this purpose, the creation of the National Council of Imams (Conseil National des Imams) has been announced in order to train future French imams. The French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM or Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, established in 2003 under the “guidance” Nicolas Sarkozy’s Ministry of Interior), will play a major role in this new initiative. Despite facing strong opposition and struggling to garner popular support among Muslim communities the CFCM has been asked to produce a charter of the French Republican values that will be used in this training.
This project has been criticized both within and outside the Muslim community in France and abroad. It implies that Imams and Muslim associations do not (yet) respect the rules and republican principles . It is also a breach of the separation of state and religion. In other words, the French State has no legitimacy by law to interfere within the internal management of religious organizations . The ongoig debate also shed light on the lack of political consensus on what laïcite entails. For instance, on one hand , some advance a “defensive” laïcité: in order to comply to the separation between the State and Churches; and on the other hand, the proponents of the “offensive” laïcité advocate for increased restrictions of religious activities in the public sphere.
Many observers have pointed out that “radical Islam” is not French but global and that the law will target the “wrong” or at least, the not so relevant Islamic actors. Political scientist, Franck Frégosi, pointed out the counter productive effect of targeting imams , who actually are at the forefront of fighting radicalism. Even more problematic, is the fact that imams’s opinions or experiences are not taking into account in the decision-making process.
The crux of the matter is whether this bill aims at creating a French Republican Islam or a presidential Islam? As a matter of fact, because the next presidential elections will take place in 2021, Emmanuel Macron ‘s focus on Islam appears as a strategy to gain votes from the right and extreme right of the political spectrum .
International critics towards Macron
French policy toward Islam has also raised critiques in Muslim majority countries, which has translated into the boycott of French products. As a result, some French Muslim intellectuals have taken position against such actions.
The closing by the French state of the Committee against Islamophobia in France or CCIF (le collectif contre l’islamophobie en France) happened shortly after the shut down of the Barakacity. Ngo. Both associations have since transferred their activities abroad. These shutdowns have been condemned across the Muslim world. For instance, CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), published a press release to condemn French measures. Last month, Amnesty International declared that the bill is a threat the freedom of association in France.
Such critics reveal the challenge of translating laicite outside France. Case in point: Emmanuel Macron called on the “English language media” misunderstanding of laicite and gave an interview in The New York Times to defend his position. Macron accused these media of “legitimizing” violence 9 and denounced the influence of American universities in shaping what he calls “islamo-gauchisme” (Islamic left). He also insisted on universalism of the French model (opposed to the multiculturalist one).
Additionally Macron has been accused of « hypocrisy » since he welcomed Egyptian president al-Sissi with the republican pomp and honors. Such double standards are a proof for Macron detractors that his focus on Islam is purely opportunistic and that the “right shift” in his policy is a strategy in view of future elections.